Wonder and Skepticism Part 2: Finding Critical Friends

What makes science, science? In Carl Sagan’s essay, “Wonder and Skepticism,” he presented the core of science as two seemingly opposing points of view. On one hand, science requires openness and curiosity about the world. But openness to see is not enough. Science also requires that we examine our observations with care and caution—in Sagan’s words, it requires skepticism .

In this use, skepticism refers to subjecting our ideas to question and critique. Everything we hypothesize will not turn out to be correct. That is not a mistake, it is an essential part of the process. In science, it is expected that other scientists will examine your work, try to replicate it, and test its power. At least in theory, fame and authority are no protection from criticism. Science is built on data, carefully examined. Successful scientists critique their own work, trying to identify and address weaknesses before it is presented to the field, and then listen to the critiques of others to improve it. Sagan calls this science’s built in error-correcting mechanism.

As we think about helping students prepare for the world of science, one of the habits of mind we need to share is the helpful nature of criticism and the value in critiquing our own ideas. This is a hard concept in school, where the typical assumption is that students are to identify the correct ideas and anything else constitutes a failure.  While the phrase “critical friends” is associated with a particular structure for teacher discussion groups, the concept is a crucial one in many areas. Critical, or perhaps “skeptical friends” help us learn and improve our work. I’ve frequently told students that when I’m writing something I care about, I share it with my pickiest friends. I don’t want friends who will just tell me everything is wonderful, because those friends don’t help me improve. We can help students know they need critical friends—and careful critiques of their own work—to become good scientists and good thinkers.

At the beginning, students may utilize critical friends to help them spot basic grammatical errors or places their flow of ideas is difficult to follow, but once the process is in place, the same kinds of relationships can help young people learn to examine and defend their ideas across subject areas. They can, together, respond to key questions such as “What is the evidence?” or “What else might explain this?” In science “because I think so” is not evidence, and all ideas are not equal. Those are important concepts in science, and for the information age in general.

Today, with the glut of information available at our fingertips, it is more important than ever that students be able to critique the ideas presented to them, whether they be scientific, political, or cultural. I’ve seen a quote from Sagan floating around social media, and wondered if it could be accurate. Turns out, it is from the very article I’ve been pondering this week. In explaining his passion for bringing scientific ideas to public spaces, Sagan talked about his worries.

It’s a foreboding I have ‐‐ maybe ill‐placed ‐‐ of an America in my children’s generation, or my grandchildren’s generation, when all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when we’re a service and information‐processing economy; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest even grasps the issues; when the people (by “the people” I mean the broad population in a democracy) have lost the ability to set their own agendas, or even to knowledgeably question those who do set the agendas; when there is no practice in questioning those in authority. . . our critical faculties in steep decline, unable to distinguish between what’s true and what feels good, we slide, almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness. (p. 26)

Today, when a substantial portion of our population seems willing—or even eager—to ignore science, or put feelings and beliefs on a par with data, Sagan’s words are haunting.  If we want a world in which science—and thoughtfulness in general–can flourish, we will need Sagan’s balance of wonder and skepticism. Helping our students find it is one of our key creative tasks.






Sagan, C. (1995). Wonder and skepticism. Skeptical Enquirer, 19, 1, 24-30.



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